Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jess Joins the MFA Blog

Hello everyone! Thank you to Tom and everyone on the blog for inviting me to contribute. My name is Jess and I am in the middle of applying to what feels like a million MFA programs but is, in reality, about six.

A little about me: I graduated from the George Washington University in 2006 and feel like my writing has changed drastically since then. As a student, I was constantly writing and receiving feedback. Because I studied Journalism and Creative Writing, there was always something new to write about, discover, improve upon. I did not realize that the "real world" would be devoid of that glorious writer's merry-go-round.

So last year, I saved up some money and headed out to a summer workshop on "Beginning Your Novel" at the University of Iowa. It was amazing to be back in the workshop format, surrounded by people who wanted the same things I wanted, had read all the books I'd read. As I currently live in Washington, DC, conversation usually tends toward Tea Party candidates and the ever-increasing Metro fare rather than form, foils, and great first pages.

As soon as I got back to DC, I began looking into MFA programs. I've heard that they matter, they don't matter, they help, they put you in debt, and on and on. But all I know is that I feel out of the only loop I've ever felt comfortable in, and I want to rejoin it before it gets "too late" (which my mother swears never really happens, but I do not believe her).

So, to recap this little All-About-Jess-And-Her-Potential-MFA: I'm 26, living in DC and teaching yoga. I used to work as an editorial assistant for a publishing company but left to teach yoga full time when I felt like I was fixing the printer more than reading manuscripts. Now, after a quick stint in Iowa, I'm determined to throw myself back into the writing world.

I really look forward to getting advice from those who are already in an MFA program and commiserating with those of you in the middle of the application process with me. Who knows? Maybe we'll be classmates next fall.


jaime said...

Hi Jess! I, too, am applying to MA/MFA programs and the lone journalism program (my MFA programs are for non-fiction). I was wondering what kind of books you've been reading to help prepare you, as nearly all want you to mention current reading in personal statements. I feel like my reading runs the gamut, but sometimes I don't feel like I'm reading books that are "literary enough" - which, in itself, is such a constructed idea it's ridiculous, but the whole literary/nonliterary debate rages on nonetheless.....thanks, and welcome! :)

Adam Atkinson said...

Good luck, Jess! I'll be rooting for you!

Sheila Lamb said...

Hi Jess -
I'm in NoVa - we're almost neighbors! Look forward to contributing with you on the blog!

Jess Smith said...

Hi Jaime! Lucky for me, my professor at the Iowa program I attended gave us an exhaustive list of everything we should have read by now. It includes all sorts of "literary and non-literary" options and I've been tearing through it since July. I do think there are certain books that all writers/literary enthusiasts "should" read because it gives us a collective subconscious, a sort of jumping-off point. Then we can compare, contrast, discuss, etc. as we come across new literature.

For me, those books are all the works of Joyce, Chekhov, Dickens, and Nabokov. I did not enjoy everything I read from these authors but I wanted to know them, to understand why they were so important. These were some of the first authors on my professor's list.

He also had J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" (my favorite book of all time), two books by Carol Shields: "Larry's Party" and "Unless", Bryan Charles's "Grab Onto Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way", and many others I would not have picked up if it were not for his recommendations.

Other than that, I have been reading a lot of recent MFA grads and popular writers. Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Gary Shteyngart are all "hot" right now. Hopefully that will be us in a few years!

If you'd like more of the books from my super awesome list, I'll post them!

What have you been reading? Where are you applying?

Jess Smith said...

And thanks for the well wishes, Adam and Sheila!

Sarge said...

Hey Jess!

I am also living in Washington DC, and applying to MFA programs for the 2011 Fall! I have a couple questions:

How did you narrow down your decisions? I feel like the websites have little-to-no relevant information to give me a good idea of what the program will be like, so I've been working mainly off where I want to live.

Second, I'm really new to the city. Where can I go break into the poetry scene, find some workshops, etc.? I'm super shy sometimes, so structured workshops would be best.. though I'm quickly finding, as you did, that those don't really exist in the "real world."

But anyway, thanks for any help you might have, and good luck with your applications! I'll be reading.

Sally Jane said...

Hi Jess,

Just wanted to mention the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton. Amazing faculty, beautiful location, the best writers conference in the country, and just a nice everyone-is-a-member-of-the-family attitude. Thought you might want to look into it. Good luck with your search and applications!

Unknown said...

Good luck Jess, I can't wait to hear how your search goes.

jaime said...

Hi Jess,
Thank you for writing back! I am applying to nonfiction, so I've been reading nonfiction, fiction....I read "Mentor" by Tom Grimes, ZZ Packer's short stories, Mary Karr's "Lit", I've been browsing those "best american new voices" compliations from MFA programs, Zadie Smith....I'm making a huge career change (my past graduate education and career was public health/medicine), so I haven't had an English class in a long time. I joined a writing group here in CHapel Hill, so......I'm very nervous! I would love to see the list if you want to post it or email it to me (you can email me via my blog, if you click my name!).
Thank you again!!

jaime said...

oh - and to answer your other question, I think as of now, I am applying to the PhD in journalism at UNC, Hopkins' MA in medical-science writing, Columbia's creative nonfiction MFA (I know, I know, not a popular topic on this blog!) and the New School MFA in nonfiction. I was toying with UNC-Asheville in nonfiction, but still not sure. WHere are you looking?

Jess Smith said...

Sarge- welcome to DC! It's a great city and the literary scene, while small, is there! I attend every poetry reading I can at the Folger Shakespeare Library down on Capitol Hill. Busboys and Poets on 14th and V Street also has open mic poetry nights (some of which are amazing, some of which fall flat, it's a toss-up), and Politics and Prose in Van Ness is always hosting great readings.

Otherwise, the writing group scene is pretty small. There is supposed to be a good one on Wednesday nights at MidCity Coffee (14th and R) that I am thinking of checking out.

And I am definitely having trouble narrowing down my decisions. What helps is that I want to be in the Northeast corridor, but I am definitely still applying to other programs (Iowa, Michigan, etc.).

Right now, I'm looking at Brooklyn College, The New School, BU, Sarah Lawrence, Syracuse, and then Montana, University of Iowa, UT-Austin, and the University of Michigan. All MFA CW. Some are big reaches, but I have to try!

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